COVID-19 Impact on Dalit Community in Nepal

Binita Bishwakarma, Programme Assistant

The world is suffering from COVID-19 pandemic, so is Nepal, with more than 600 deaths and 100,000 COVID-19 positive cases. The graph is increasing day to day.

In order to control the outbreak at the community level, the government imposed the nation-wide lockdown for almost six months; that hugely affected the livelihood of poor and marginalized communities, mainly the Dalits.

Following the lockdown, the hotel, transportation, private sector, construction sector, informal sector and, industries were closed. All the people who have depended on these sectors have no work to do and it affected their earnings. A recent UNDP report showed that three in five employees have lost their jobs and tourism receipts are projected to fall by 60 per cent this year resulting in a $400 million loss. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown had caused a complete closure of about 61 per cent enterprises, leading to 73.8 per cent drop in the production and trade of goods and services in the country

(Source: A nationwide survey on the ‘Impact of COVID-19 on the economy’ conducted by the Nepal Rastra Bank (National Bank of Nepal).

Most of the Dalit community have lost their employment opportunity due to the pandemic, as majority of the dalits depend on daily wages and small scale income generating activities. The Dalit community is a historically excluded group and suffers even more from the pandemic. The Dalits, also known as the “untouchables”, are prone to any kind of disaster since half of their population is living under the poverty line. Most of the Dalits are landless and millions rely on daily wages from the informal sectors.

A Recent DCA conducted Survey on the Impacts of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in Sudurpashchim province, showed that 46% of those returned from seasonal migration after loosing their jobs were from Dalit Community. This also shows that the majority of seasonal migrant workers going to India looking for jobs are from the Dalit communities. And they are hugely affected.

The Government of Nepal has eased the lockdown phase wise. It has lifted most of the lockdown from 17 September 2020, allowing local and long route buses travel across the country, resumption of restaurants, hotels, shops; and domestic flights from 21 September; however, they will have to follow the MoHP health and safety guidelines. The places or institutions with potential for high intensity transmission (schools, colleges, trainings, cinema hall, party palace, religious places, etc.) will remain closed. However, it will still take years to normalize the situation.

And for these marginalized communities those were in the vulnerable situation, will push them back to several years.

According to news reports, Malara Sada Khan from Saptari district starved to death due to extreme poverty. Because of the acute poverty of his family, the locals raised donations for his cremation. This is the situation of most of the poor daily worker Dalits in Nepal – and not only Dalits, but of most of the vulnerable and marginalised people amid lockdown. The local government is distributing relief material, but is not enough to provide for a family even for a week. They were also barred from getting the relief materials as they couldn’t produce citizenship or voter card. Some even didn’t know about the distribution.

Dalits are deprived of nutritious food and pregnant women lack nourishment. Not just economically, they are also excluded socially and have been always struggling for their existence.

According to a study conducted by Samata Foundation, 56 caste-based discrimination cases were reported during the lockdown period, and among them, 8 caste-based discriminatory behaviour happened in the quarantine centres, a woman was beaten by Ward Chairperson during relief material collection in the Mahotari District. The district court doesn’t seem giving priority to the caste-based -discrimination cases even though the Supreme Court has given the right to the district court to prioritise the case.

The Dalit community covers 13.2% of the total population in Nepal and they are historically marginalised in a systematic way. As a result of which, 42% are under the poverty line which is 17% higher than the national average (25.2%). Due to the exclusion, 36.7% Hill and 41.4%Madhesi Dalit are landless which has made them economically vulnerable and dependent upon landlords, 42.5% Dalit depend on elementary occupation due to lack of occupational skill, 52.4% are illiterate, poor access to resources and still depending on the traditional occupation (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2011.). Nepal’s Multi Indicator Survey, the food sufficiency means value (percent) is extremely low for Dalits compared to an average 77%. The food sufficiency for Hill Dalits is 56.0% and Tarai/Madhesi Dalits is 53.7%, which indicate that rest of the Dalits do not consume adequate amounts of food. Analyzing these data, it can easily be speculated the current condition of Dalit community.  

The Dalit community has less access to WASH facility (Nepal Social Inclusion Survey (NSIS) 2012, TU), media and means of information (radio, phone, social media, and TV) about COVID-19 related information, lack of access to service, Dalit community are not aware and informed about the importance of personal hygiene and physical distancing, which can put them in a higher risk of contracting the disease (FEDO).

The pandemic is still ongoing, and it is impossible to predict when it will end. In this situation, the Government of Nepal and non-government organisations should bring the immediate adequate relief package to the poor and Dalit communities.

This pandemic has highlighted the importance of psychosocial counseling. The Dalit communities have been suffering from physical and mental torture created by caste -based discrimination from the century. Nepal Police report shows that there has been tremendous increase in the suicide case, following the COVID-19 crisis. At least 20 people are killing themselves on a daily basis, which is almost double than the last year. Therefore, one psychosocial-counseling center should be established in each ward and it should be continued even after the pandemic.

All the information related to the COVID-19 pandemic should be accessible to all including the Dalit community, which however is not the case. Owing to their poor economic and social status, Dalit community has less access to media and other means of information. This may demand for a more tailored and robust awareness raising activities on COVID-19 targeted for the marginal segment of the community including the Dalits.

These calls for the attention from the relevant sectors- both government and non-government, in generating the shorter term and longer-term employment opportunities to the Dalit communities.

They also have their traditional occupation which can be supported to upgrade and modernise through technical and financial assistance, so that they get better access to market and potential buyers/consumers. 

It has been a long time since that development sector and the Government of Nepal have been working for the Dalit community but still, results have not as expected. Moreover, this pandemic has shown the real condition of the Dalit community so there’s a need from the government and non-government organisations to review their working modality, plan and policy while designing the post pandemic programme.

The data is very crucial as it helps to have an appropriate and realistic plan immediately in such a humanitarian crisis, but the problem is, we don’t have real statistics of the affected Dalit community. The government should take data disaggregation based on gender, caste, ethnicity, age, disability to ensure that no one is left behind from the government’s initiatives addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in its all phases.